My daughter has to write an English essay along the lines of, “Violence breeds violence. How does Emily Bronte portray violence in Wuthering Heights?” I became a sounding board for Emma’s ideas as she trawled through the episodes of violence in this gothic novel. It made me think. What are the attitudes to violence of the people who live in countries where there is the death penalty, or other forms of violent punishment? Are they more prone to believe that violence is an acceptable action? If violence is seen as the right, and justified, course of action by the state, does it follow that the citizens will also feel that violence is right and justified when seeking their own justice?
In asking these questions, I am not seeking to take a political stance, or even to say that violence is right or wrong. It is just that intuitively I would expect to see elevated levels of illegal violence in societies where there is legal violence.
We bring our children up with fairy stories which say that it is right for the hero/ine to kill the witch / ogre / giant / dragon / evil person and steal their gold. To be fair though, the non-human varieties of antagonist are usually threatening to eat the hero/ine, so it is an understandable view to take.
(Are fairy tale witches non-human by the way?)
I realise that the fairy stories would lose some of their appeal if Gretal had picked up the phone to the police and the witch had been arrested and tried for false imprisonment, or if social services had taken Cinderalla into care whilst she was still sitting amongst the embers to keep warm, but what does it say about our view of natural justice?
This is relevant to those of us who are involved in world building, whether in science fiction, high fantasy, alternative reality or even urban fantasy. How do we portray violence and attitudes to violence? Can our hero/ine kill with impunity just because the antagonist and his / her henchmen (henchpeople?) are bad? Usually we contrive killing to be in self defence, but rarely do we allow our hero/ine to suffer the consequences. How many books can you think of where the evil destroyer is still alive at the end? At the final end, I mean, not the end of Book 1! Is it that we tend to polarise our characters? If the antagonist is unremittingly evil and is hell bent on murder and mayhem, then his/her death is necessary for natural justice, but would we be comfortable killing someone who is a tortured soul who does evil things in his/her spare time, so to speak?
How we treat violence colours the whole of the societies that we build. We owe it to our characters to understand the cascade of violence, from the children’s tales to the state executions (not suggesting one leads on to the other, you understand), so that we can honestly portray their actions and their reactions to the hell we put them through.